Is Singapore fit for a red hat?

Next month, Archbishop William Goh Seng Chye of Singapore will receive a red hat from Pope Francis and become the first cardinal from Singapore. Although major Asian cities like Hong Kong, Jakarta, and Bangkok have had cardinals for years, it is the first time that a bishop of Singapore has reached

Jul 08, 2022

Next month, Archbishop William Goh Seng Chye of Singapore will receive a red hat from Pope Francis and become the first cardinal from Singapore. Although major Asian cities like Hong Kong, Jakarta, and Bangkok have had cardinals for years, it is the first time that a bishop of Singapore has reached such a position. Clearly, 35 years after Operation Spectrum, the Holy See seems determined to move on, hoping that Singaporeans can now play a more active role in the pastoral care of the universal Church.

Since the news came out, Archbishop Goh has explained that this honour is ultimately not about him, an “ordinary man” as he says, but Singapore. In his view, the cardinalate is also a message for Singapore in its entirety, for the local Church and the city-state.

It is true that the Holy See has long worked at better integrating Singapore into the leadership of the universal Church. For instance, over the past decade, four Singaporeans have been appointed to offices of the Holy See. The former foreign minister George Yeo has served at Vatican's Council for the Economy, and the consultant Lawrence Chong for the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. At a different level, it is also Singapore that is hosting the Vatican non-resident representative to Vietnam.

The Vatican’s interest in Singapore makes sense. Over the years, the influence of the city-state has constantly increased, becoming a leader in various domains. As everyone knows, Singapore is a growing financial and commercial hub attracting countless international companies. With China remaining closed and access to cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong being significantly difficult, Singapore is becoming an even more vital international hub for trade and business.

Furthermore, events like the Shangri-La Dialogue underscore how the Red Dot of South-East Asia is also an important geopolitical place. Since Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un chose Singapore to meet in 2018, the world knows that the city-state is a precious partner for a diplomatic encounter. Over the years, the Lion City has been extremely proactive in fostering international cooperation.

Besides, Singapore has developed a model of religious coexistence that many countries envy.

With its extremely diverse population, the city-state recognises 10 official religions and constantly encourages inter-religious encounters. Religious leaders and communities have generated various associations to know each other and value their respective traditions.

Finally, Singapore is a growing academic hub where scholars from all backgrounds come to teach, research and publish. With its proficiency in English and the variety of its universities, the city-state is highly interconnected with international think tanks and research institutions.

Singapore is a place where ideas can be exchanged, preconceptions questioned, and global collaborations expanded.

Clearly, Singapore has a lot to share. The Holy See would like Singapore to play a stronger role within Asian and global Catholicism.

Despite the fact that many religious orders established in Singapore are actively collaborating with other parts of Asia, priests and churchgoers admit that the local Church has been quite insular. Parish life is often the beginning and the end of Singaporean Catholicism. Archbishop Goh himself recognises that Singapore does not really fit into the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. In short, Singaporean Catholicism has a bit of the ‘only child syndrome.’ And while the city-state is an international actor of global significance, the archdiocese has a hard time playing a regional role.

Yet, with the recent decline of Hong Kong — the office of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) and several Catholic media outlets have recently left the city — the Holy See is looking for alternative partners. Of course, Manila will continue to host training programmes for Asian clergy members and lay people. But the Philippines is a country of quasi-Christendom that cannot stand as an ideal model for 21st-century Asia. As the Catholic Church deepens its commitment to inter-religious awareness and cooperation, Singapore appears as a clear source of inspiration.

Unlike countries where a single religious tradition or state secularism dominates public discourse, and sometimes academic research, Singaporean public institutions are open to a huge diversity of approaches. Singaporeans are not stuck in a binary religious world — Catholicism vs Protestantism, Christianity vs Secularism, Christianity vs Islam. Singapore is truly shaped by a variety of religious traditions. This multi-religious coexistence which informs Singaporean culture, business opportunities, academic environment as well as its local Catholicism could benefit other Catholic Churches across the world.

But to make this happen, Singapore still has work to do.

Following the example of other sectors, the local Church is invited to overcome its insularity and embrace its global and regional responsibility. For the past decades, most fundraising programmes organised by Singaporean Catholic entities have been oriented toward the construction of expensive — but not always steady — buildings. And when demands were made for the organisation of regional events, the archbishop’s office often answered – “we don’t have money.”

Unlike the Holy Spirit Centre in Hong Kong, the East Asia Pastoral Institute at Ateneo or the Institute for Consecrated Life in Asia, both in Manila, Singapore has no place dedicated to the study of the lived realities of Asian Catholics nor any stable programme to support the gathering and training of Asian Catholic leaders and ministers.

Of course, it would not make sense to simply copy and duplicate what is already done elsewhere. Singapore needs to find its own way to contribute to Asian and Global Catholicism.

Whether through its technological advance, academic expertise, multi-religious experience, or strategic location, many believe that the Church in Singapore has a lot to offer. It is a matter of vision and commitment.

Of course, this will not be possible without collaboration with local authorities. Allowing foreign catechists, nuns, and priests to enter Singapore for any kind of event or training requires not only a proper visa but a mutual understanding between the administration and the local Church.

Similarly, creating new institutions serving Asian Catholics requires proper sponsorship and authorisation.

But again, the cardinalate cannot be reduced to a papal election behind closed doors. In the Catholic Church, this honour comes with broader moral duties and higher accountability. As Archbishop Goh highlights, the whole of Singapore should feel called. In an age of growing uncertainties, regional tensions, and sharper religious discrimination, Singapore has a lot to share. --

(Michel Chambon is a French theologian and cultural anthropologist who studies Christianity in the Chinese world. At the National University of Singapore, he coordinates ISAC, the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics.)

Total Comments:0